What do Mexican lotería and George R. R. Martin have in common? Meet artist John Picacio
Chances are, if you are a George R. R. Martin fan, you've seen artist John Picacio's work. Not only has the talented Mexican-American artist done art for the "Game of Thrones" originator's Wild Cards universe, but he also illustrated the 2012 George R. R. Martin / A Song of Ice and Fire calendar.
Picacio has created the cover art for a lot of well-known fantasy and science fiction authors, as it happens, and has even won the most coveted of science fiction awards — the Hugo — twice. AL DÍA caught up with Picacio after the artist completed another significant set of artworks — his limited edition series, "Once: Lotería Grande" — inspired by the tremendously popular Mexican lotería game. W were able to talk to him about this new direction for his work, his love of Science Fiction and Fantasy (SF/F) and his Latino artistic sensibilities.
AL DÍA: Tell us a little about yourself.
Picacio: I'm a geek kid of the 1970s and 80s who grew up in San Antonio, devouring comic books and science fiction films, and became a professional cover illustrator. I've cover-illustrated books and literary media by George R. R. Martin, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, Brenda Cooper, Frederik Pohl, Dan Simmons, Mark Chadbourn, Sheri S. Tepper, James Tiptree, Jr., Lauren Beukes, Jeffrey Ford, Joe R. Lansdale, (among others). I was also the artist for the 2012 George R. R. Martin / A Song of Ice and Fire Calendar. And I'm the owner of Lone Boy, which is a home for my creator-owned works such as Loteria.
I love SF/F in all forms. One of the best things about being an SF/F illustrator is reading the manuscripts for the books I'm cover-illustrating. When I'm working on a cover illustration for a book, I treat the manuscript as if it's a friend at a party, and I'm introducing this friend to the world via my art. I don't introduce friends by telling everyone every thing about the new person. I use my art to tell them what I think will make them most compelled to want to know this person better.
You have won an tremendous number of awards but you aren't a household name for Latinos.
I think I'm still an unknown to most of my own people, and even within my own hometown.
The people who know my work are SF/F industry figures, SF/F readers and art collectors. I won the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist (the same year as the Song of Fire and Ice calendar was published). I won it again the following year, and I've been fortunate enough to win the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, two International Horror Guild Awards, and seven Chesleys.
In some ways, building the audience for Loteria is like starting over. That said, it does seem to connect well with my existing fan bases because they love the art and they love collecting my Loteria Grande cards.
The other day, I was watching footage of Jimi Hendrix at the '67 Monterey Pop Festival. When the camera pans over to the audience, you can almost imagine a collective thought balloon over them, and it says, "What the heck is going on here? What is that guy doing to that guitar?" That's the kind of look I often get when my own people first look at my cards, "What the heck did you do to my Loteria?"
And then they hold the cards in their hands, and they fall in love. That's the best compliment of all — watching people's eyes shift from 'wow' to desire. I'm in love with doing this artwork, so I'm glad that people are loving the stuff that's coming out. Right now, I'm trying to build the audience. The better the cards sell, the faster I can produce the next artworks.
Why the lotería cards?
Loteria is part of my culture. I'm 100 percent Mexican-American and I grew up playing the game with my mother and grandma, so the cards feel as familiar as a relative.
I've seen the traditional icons of these cards used so much in art — to the extent that they're almost a cliché. I've seen waves of artists do homages to the traditional icons, but I've yet to see anyone doing what I'm doing with them. I want to take a past-time that largely belongs to my own people as an exclusive experience, and I want to bring that experience to the world as an inclusive experience. I thought at first I was creating new art for an old game, or even a Mexican tarot for the modern age, and now I'm starting to realize these artworks I'm doing are so much more. They're gateways to stories.
You have a very distinctive fantasy style. How did it develop and who were your influences?
My works are a combination of traditional and digital media. I use Faber Castell pencils, all kinds of brushes, acrylics, oils, Liquin, colored pencils, pastels, charcoal, ink — whatever it takes to communicate. I usually work on either Strathmore 500 illustration stock or thick illustration board. The important thing to remember is that my digital work is basically the compositing of my traditionally-created drawings and paintings. All of the drawing and painting is done in the real world.
I like getting my hands dirty and making things in the physical world, whether it be drawing, painting, or building. Think of the process as building a sandwich. The ingredients of the sandwich are traditional media — stuff I'm making by hand. However, the ways in which these ingredients are assembled and composited is handled in the digital world. I've never perceived digital media and traditional media as exclusive of each other. I enjoy working between the poles of traditional and digital media. We live in a world driven by daily digital revolutions, and I want my art to respond to that without being a slave to it.
Would you describe your work as particularly Latino? If so, in what way? Do you think there is a sort of Latino sensibility in visual arts?
I'm the worst person to judge if my own stuff is considered Latino or not. I'm too close to it. I do what comes naturally to me and I put my sensibilities into all of my work, whether it's a cover gig for a corporate client or a Loteria artwork.
There are some that feel my color sense marks me as Latino, but again, I think I think it's for the audience to decide that, not me. I just do the work.
When you look at the history of my cover art, many of my cover drawings and paintings are referenced from the likenesses of my family and friends. There's a blue-collar work ethic that runs through all generations of my family, and that's probably at the root of a lot of my sensibilities. I would say that the Loteria work is absolutely an expression of my own statement on my culture, but the bottom line is it feels like I'm creating fifty-four love letters.
Are you a fulltime artist? What advice do you have for young Latinos thinking of going into art as a profession?
I'm proud to be a full-time professional illustrator since 2001.
As far as advice, I would say that the best thing to do is find what you love most, do it, keep doing it, and keep improving what you're doing.
I always tell myself that there's "Plan A," and if that doesn't work, there's "Plan A." And if that doesn't work, there's "Plan A." I don't know if that's good advice for everyone, but it's been largely the way I've handled my own career.
The important thing is to keep your eyes open, know what you love, and give all of yourself to it.
What's the split between commissioned work and work that you do along your own interests? Do you exhibit your work? Where can we see it in person?
I'm shifting from being a "creative" to a hybrid of "creative" and "creator." Loteria is definitely a creator-owned work, and I'm spending more and more time working on that, while I continue to do commissioned cover illustration for large corporate clients as a "creative" (freelancer or gun-for-hire). I think the future for successful freelance illustrators is a mixture of both, and I certainly intend to continue working in both for the foreseeable future.
The only places I physically exhibit my original work are SF/F convention art shows, when I'm on the road, and there will be an exhibition of my first dozen Loteria artworks at George R. R. Martin's Jean Cocteau Theatre in Santa Fe, New Mexico this August.
Beyond that, the best way for folks to get their hands on my Loteria works is purchasing the first Loteria Grande cards that are now available. They're large-sized, limited-run art cards with the color illustration on the front, and my final pencil art reproduced on the reverse side. I'm really proud of how they've been turning out.
• • •